What’s been cooking—food flavours that took centre of the plate

What was on your plate in 2023? With millet mania sweeping the country, you must have added it to your meal plan. All major food brands as well as start-ups served up ragi, foxtail, barnyard and kodo millet in one form or the other — from dosa mixes to atta to breakfast cereals.

But other flavourful things happened in the food industry too. Korean ramyeon became a craze, protein popped, we went nuts over nuts, seeds and berries, rediscovered regional repasts and, of course, health and wellness boomed, even as indulgence showed innovation.

Here are the top trends this year, picked out by two seasoned food industry veterans — Rinka Banerjee, founder of Thinking Forks Consulting and KS Narayanan, former MD, McCain Foods, and ex-President, VKL Seasonings. Both have a Unilever background and both are currently helping brands in the food sector innovate and scale.

Healthy portions

Gone are the days when the healthier alternative in packaged foods was usually costlier, and had a niche audience. Covid made health and wellness a top priority and brands are putting it on the centre of the plate, targeting the masses. “Investors and brands are looking at the belly of the market,” says Banerjee. She says 70 to 80 per cent of the launches she has helped with recently are health and wellness oriented, either focussing on high fibre, high protein, or riding on Ayurveda.

Narayanan who has helped scale True Elements, a start-up brand that provides healthy breakfast and snacks and been acquired by Marico, agrees. “Earlier adding health in a food offering was more of a guilt assuaging act – you would see seeds being added on a croissant and so on. Now, I am seeing healthfulness getting into menus and foods in a bigger way,” he says. Pointing to the mainstreaming of millet, he cites the example of how even Amul has come up with a crispy millet cone for its ice-cream. Banerjee says that the health factor has fuelled a lot of interest in using Ayurveda ingredients in food products. For instance, Ashwagandha is now commonly seen. Kapiva is a D2C brand that has products based on Ayurveda. Going forward she says probiotics will be seen in a bigger way in this category.

Indulgence & Innovation

Even as India is putting healthier stuff on its plates, the indulgence category continues to boom and has become more interesting. Brands like 4700 BC which gave us gourmet popcorn in inventive flavours such as nutty chocolate and salted caramel, are really pushing the envelope on innovative new offerings. Bakeries and mithai shops are experimenting heavily on cakes and sweets even as a host of new entrants are re-imagining products. Take Manam Chocolates’ unique confections, for instance. We are also seeing stuff like rasmalai tiramisu, and cranberry flavoured kaju katli.

Indianness to the fore

A trend that Narayanan highlights is the way “Indianness” has become stronger across the food sector. “We are seeing a cross pollination of Indian cuisines – a wedding in Agra will have a Gujarati food counter, hotels in Delhi may have a Kerala cuisine pop up,” he says. Indeed, Indians have developed a taste for authentic regional delicacies – so much so that Zomato started “Intercity Legends’, flying in the best from every region, be it baked rasgullas from Kolkata, pyaaz kachori from Jaipur or biryani from Hyderabad.

Ethnic flavours are big, agrees Banerjee. She gives the example of how Tasty Tales, a start-up, picked up recipes of our grandmothers and made ready-to-cook pastes for millennials — from dilli wale chhole, nolen gur kheer to Bengali mustard prawns. Or take the way Pepsi launched Kurkure chaat fills this September, highlighting the flavours of Indian street food.

As Indian consumers open up to the diverse tastes within the country itself, food is bringing the country closer. At World Food India held in Delhi, for instance, it was interesting to see a big crowd around a Manipuri stall that was promoting its black rice-based crispy breakfast cereal brand, Chak-Hao Pops.

Korean craze

While there is huge interest in ethnic cuisine, consumers are also embracing more diverse international flavours in a big way. But it is Korean cuisine or K-Food that took the market by storm in 2023. Move over Maggi as the instant noodles that millennials were seen ordering a lot were Nongshim Shin Ramyun, Nongshim Neoguri Ramyeon , Paldo Dakgalbi and other Korean offerings. Quick commerce and grocery store shelves are now full of these packs and food bloggers are putting out K-food recipes on instagram.

“Consumers are becoming highly experimental. At the same time, a trend I see is the big narrowing of the gap between fresh food and packaged food,” says Banerjee. So, if Indians are developing a taste for, say, hummus or Korean spices, you will soon see those flavours being available in packaged form as well.

Proteins pop

At the start of the year, at a marketing conclave in Delhi, Amul chief, Jayen Mehta, in his presentation delved on the growth of protein as a category. He described how Amul had launched high-protein buttermilk. Both Banerjee and Narayanan agree that protein as a category is moving beyond fitness enthusiasts and has become the USP for products sold to kids, elderly, vegetarians et al. “We have done work for an ageing population that starts to lose muscle mass, patenting a particular product,” says Banerjee. She says that earlier India was mainly focussed on milk protein, but beyond dairy, you are now seeing development in proteins from mushrooms, from chickpeas and internationally from seaweed too.

Narayanan says that within proteins, he is seeing big growth in nuts, seeds, berries, with a lot of brands entering the market. “Peanut butter has become a big category now. There is also the introduction of Tempeh in the Indian market with local flavours and protein rich ice cream,” he says.

Energy drinks go mass

For Narayanan, a significant trend this year is the mainstreaming of energy drinks. Pepsi’s introduction of Sting in PET bottles, priced at an affordable ₹20, has been a game changer for the category. “Children, adults, construction workers, everyone has taken to the drink,” says Narayanan. While there is still a premium segment in cans, led by Red Bull, it’s the mass segment that has become interesting with the Tatas entering the space with the launch of its Say Never energy drink brand.

Valorising waste

The food sector has also done a lot of interesting work around packaging. Two trends have led to packaging innovation. One is what Narayanan terms as ‘Eatertainment’. “This trend of taking photos of everything you eat or drink has led to better packaging and superior food presentation,” he says.

Banerjee talks about sustainability driving packaging innovation. “We have done interesting work outside of India on valorising waste, working with banana peels,” she says. A good example is ID Foods serving grated coconut in a coconut shell. Well, there’s plenty to chew on as we head into 2024!

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